Special Issue

April 2011

Special Issue

A special issue from Royal Society Publishing- 'Culture evolves', organized and edited by Andrew Whiten, Robert A Hinde, Christopher B Stringer & Kevin N Laland.


Flier (pdf)

£47.50: Details & Order info... (quote special code TB1567)
or email Debbie.Vaughan@royalsociety.org



Social learning:
"...learning that is influenced by observation of, or interaction with, another animal (typically a conspecific) or its products..."
C. Heyes, 1994

"...a distinctive behavior pattern shared by two or more individuals in a social unit, which persists over time and that new practitioners acquire in part through socially aided learning..."
D. Fragaszy & S. Perry, 2003

...defined by some as synonymous with tradition; others require additional criteria such as that cultures are constituted of multiple and/or diverse kinds of traditions, such as technology and social customs...
A. Whiten & C. van Schaik 2007: see Whiten, 2005 and Laland and Galef, 2009, for further discussion



"We've always considered culture as a uniquely human attribute, something to be celebrated as an integral part of civilisations through the ages. However, scientific research is now questioning this perceived wisdom and identifying in other species some fascinating examples of social customs and other practices associated with culture. That science may show that culture is an attribute shared by species other than our own would result in some challenging moral dilemmas for us to navigate, as well as potentially challenging our own understanding of what it means to be human."
Lord Melvyn Bragg FRS FBA - Science Sees Further

University of St AndrewsUniversity of CambridgeUniversity of EdinburghUniversity of StirlingBBSRCLeverhulme TrustESRCERC

Culture so strongly shapes us humans that it might seem at first sight to separate us from the rest of biology and from Darwinian evolution. Our recent research paints a very different picture.

We've discovered that 'culture' (broadly, the passing on of traditions by learning from others) is a much more important force in the animal kingdom than has been assumed. It's richer in quality than anybody thought, in a range of animals from fish to apes, and even insects. And because culture provides a second kind of inheritance (1), piggy-backing on existing genetic inheritance, discovering the forms it takes is extending and transforming our understanding of biology and Darwinian evolution. Our exhibit shows how we have revealed examples of culture in fish, meerkats and chimpanzees.

These represent one meaning of our title, 'culture evolves' - the discovery that our human culture has not appeared out of the blue, because forms of culture have evolved in widespread ways in the animal kingdom.  Our own cultural complexity has evolved from simpler forms, that we can begin to reconstruct through our studies of apes and other animals.

But there is also a second meaning of 'culture evolves'.  Once culture appears, a new form of evolution can take off - cultural evolution. This is very evident in the cumulative progress of human culture, as each generation builds on the achievements of earlier ones in technology, science, art and every aspect of human endeavour. Cultural evolution has been suggested to resemble Darwinian, biological evolution in some fundamental ways - a focus of current debate. (2)

It's a real challenge to develop a scientific study of something this complex. One answer is to set up experimental simulations in the lab, which take the form of 'Chinese whispers' games. We have used these to discover some of the fundamental processes that can drive cumulative cultural change along a chain of people, where each individual can build on the achievements of the last. Our exhibit shows several examples that visitors can participate in. 

Together, the examples in our exhibit illustrate how we are at last establishing an 'experimental science of culture'.

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